After spending 18 months studying sexual harassment in the workplace, last year the EEOC’s special task force released a report stating that most anti-harassment training doesn’t prevent harassment because the focus is on “simply avoiding legal liability.”
The EEOC’s message is clear: Anti-harassment training must change if it is to reduce the risk of workplace harassment and costly claims. But it cannot stand alone or be siloed as HR’s problem.
Training is most effective when it is a part of an organization’s holistic approach to preventing harassment, discrimination and retaliation. And that begins with an organization’s culture – including its attitudes about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The EEOC believes that workplace culture is the biggest influence on whether organizations actively prevent harassment or allow it to persist.
Of course, laws are important and training plays a valuable role in keeping employees up to date on new anti-harassment laws and regulations that affect their workplace, both on the federal and local level. For example, if you’re a California employer with 50 or more workers, under a new law, CA SB 396, which went into effect on January 1, you must cover gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation in your anti-harassment training for managers.
However, instead of spending a lot of time on legal definitions, training should focus on educating employees on the different types of sexual harassment and retaliation, and preparing them to take appropriate actions when they see it or experience it.
If your anti-harassment training is working, it should spark conversations among employees and managers about your particular workplace culture, and what needs to change to create a more respectful, harassment-free environment. Training can encourage ongoing discussions about workplace harassment by creating emotional connections between employees and the content.
For example, effective training incorporates video scenarios and interactivity to dramatize the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
Among its other recommendations, the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace advises that organizations offer training “on a dynamic and repeated basis to all employees.”
Organizations should also prioritize training managers and supervisors. The EEOC said that middle-managers and first-line supervisors in particular can be a most valuable resource in preventing and stopping harassment.
The agency also recommends that organizations conduct civility training and bystander intervention training to encourage employees to maintain respectful workplaces and intervene or report incidents of harassment, bullying or other abusive behavior.
Rather than focus on legal definitions and avoiding legal liability, anti-harassment training should emphasize changing behaviors and attitudes. Your sexual harassment training can be a catalyst for ongoing conversations about your specific workplace culture and the repercussions of unethical and illegal conduct. However, to be truly effective, the EEOC reports, sexual harassment training must be a part of a holistic, comprehensive strategy to prevent harassment and retaliation that senior management supports with their words and actions.